Too cute to shoot.

Dear Word Detective:  I was watching an old pirate movie the other night while drifting off to sleep, and I heard the term “scallywag.”  Was that just made up for Hollywood or does it actually have a history behind it? — Not losing sleep, but curious, Scott.

Good question.  I love pirate movies, especially the old “Treasure Island” starring Robert Newton, who singlehandedly invented the “Arrgh” brand of pirate talk we’re encouraged to imitate every year on “Talk Like a Pirate Day” (September 19).

“Scallywag” (also spelled “scallawag,””scalawag,” and several other ways) is indeed a real word and not a Hollywood invention.  Its use in a pirate movie may, however, have been an anachronism. The “golden age” of piracy in the Caribbean, for instance, is generally considered to have been from the mid-17th until the mid-18th century, but “scallywag” didn’t appear in print until the mid-19th century.

Today we use “scallywag” to mean a “scamp,” a “rascal” or a “lovable rogue,” a person (usually a man) who may be less than perfectly honest, but whose crimes are fairly minor and lack malice.  At various points in its history, however, “scallywag” has been a term of more serious condemnation.

Interestingly, the first “scallywags” may not have been human.  In the US in the first half of the 19th century, “scallywag” was a term used for undersized or sick cattle (“… ‘scalawag’ was the name applied by drovers to lean and ill-favoured kine,” 1868).  Apparently extending the idea of “scrawny, useless cow” to people, “scallywag” then came into use meaning “a good-for-nothing fellow” or “a disreputable man; a villain.”  After the American Civil War, “scallywag” was applied as a term of contempt to Southern whites who cooperated with, and profited from, the harsh measures of Reconstruction.  Later on, in the late 19th and early 20th century labor struggles, “scallywag” was used as a slur against union activists.  But by the mid-20th century, “scallywag” had settled down to its modern meaning of “charming scoundrel.”

There are several theories about the origins of “scallywag,” but most dictionaries still label the word “origin uncertain.”  Several of more the plausible theories about “scallywag” point to Scotland as the source of the word.  The old Scots dialect word “scallag,” for instance, means “servant” or “rustic,” making it a possible source.  Then again, one of Scotland’s Shetland Islands is named Scalloway, and since these islands are world famous for their diminutive Shetland ponies, there may well be a connection between “Scalloway” and “scallywag” meaning a small, useless horse.  Yet another Scots word, “scurryvaig,” may be even a better bet.  Derived from the Latin “scurra vagas,” meaning roughly “wandering fool or buffoon,” this “scurryvaig” means “a vagabond or wanderer.”  Of course, it’s entirely possible that two or more of these words influenced the development of “scallywag,” so we may never be able to trace its precise family tree.

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